From 1976 to 1994, Jason Londt was Assistant Director at the Natal Museum (now KwaZulu-Natal Museum) in South Africa, publisher of the African Invertebratesjournal. Then, he became Director before retiring in 2003.
During his career at the Museum and well after that, Jason described more than 570 species and 46 genera of insects from the Afrotropics. While the majority of his work was on the robber fly family (Asilidae), Jason also worked on hangingflies (Bittacidae) and ticks. He was also a prolific collector of many other insects, still kept in the collection of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum.
Jason’s fieldwork was extensively targeting the diverse habitats in South Africa: from the subtropical coast of KwaZulu-Natal, the grasslands in the Midlands around Pietermaritzburg – where the museum is based – and further north in the Highveld, to the higher elevations of the Drakensberg Mountains bordering Lesotho, and from the Succulent and Nama Karoo, to the diverse Fynbos habitats along the south-western coast of South Africa. Additional major fieldwork took place in Namibia, Kenya, Malawi, and to a lesser extent: Eswatini (Swaziland) and Cote d’Ivoire. In addition to utilising the collected material for taxonomic work, Jason also used his field trips to publish behavioural observations and prey selection of Asilidae species.
To celebrate Jason’s career achievements and his 80th birthday, African Invertebrates will be publishing a Festschrift in his honour in April 2023. We invite any submissions linked to Jason, new species descriptions, revisions of taxa he has worked on, or any work based on specimens collected by Jason.
Taylor Swift, U.S. singer-songwriter known for hits such as “Shake It Off” and “You Belong With Me”, has earned a new accolade—she now has a new species of millipede named in her honor.
The twisted-claw millipede Nannaria swiftae joins 16 other new species described from the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. These little-known invertebrates have a valuable role as decomposers: breaking down leaf litter, they release their nutrients into the ecosystem. They live on the forest floor, where they feed on decaying leaves and other plant matter, and in fact, they are somewhat tricky to catch, because they tend to remain buried in the soil, sometimes staying completely beneath the surface.
Scientists Derek Hennen, Jackson Means, and Paul Marek, atVirginia Tech, U.S., describe the new species in a research paper published in the open access journalZooKeys. The research was funded by a National Science Foundation Advancing Revisionary Taxonomy and Systematics grant (DEB# 1655635).
Because of their presence in museum collections, scientists long suspected that the twisted-claw millipedes included many new species, but these specimens went undescribed for decades. To fix this, the researchers began a multi-year project to collect new specimens throughout the eastern U.S. They traveled to 17 US states, checking under leaf litter, rocks, and logs to find species so that they could sequence their DNA and scientifically describe them.
Looking at over 1800 specimens collected on their field study or taken from university and museum collections, the authors described 17 new species, including Nannaria marianae, which was named after Hennen’s wife. They discovered that the millipedes prefer to live in forested habitats near streams and are often found buried under the soil, exhibiting more cryptic behaviors than relatives.
The newly-described millipedes range between 18 and 38 mm long, have shiny caramel-brown to black bodies with white, red, or orange spots, and have white legs. The males have small, twisted and flattened claws on their anterior legs, which is the basis for their common name.
The lead author of the study, Derek Hennen, is a fan of Taylor Swift.
“Her music helped me get through the highs and lows of graduate school, so naming a new millipede species after her is my way of saying thanks,” he says.
Hennen DA, Means JC, Marek PE (2022) A revision of the wilsoni species group in the millipede genus Nannaria Chamberlin, 1918 (Diplopoda, Polydesmida, Xystodesmidae). ZooKeys 1096: 17-118. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1096.73485
In their Research Idea, published in Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO Journal), Swiss-Dutch research team present a promising machine-learning ecosystem to unite experts around the world and make up for lacking expert staff
Guest blog post by Luc Willemse, Senior collection manager at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre (Leiden, Netherlands)
Imagine the workday of a curator in a national natural history museum. Having spent several decades learning about a specific subgroup of grasshoppers, that person is now busy working on the identification and organisation of the holdings of the institution. To do this, the curator needs to study in detail a huge number of undescribed grasshoppers collected from all sorts of habitats around the world.
The problem here, however, is that a curator at a smaller natural history institution – is usually responsible for all insects kept at the museum, ranging from butterflies to beetles, flies and so on. In total, we know of around 1 million described insect species worldwide. Meanwhile, another 3,000 are being added each year, while many more are redescribed, as a result of further study and new discoveries. Becoming a specialist for grasshoppers was already a laborious activity that took decades, how about knowing all insects of the world? That’s simply impossible.
Then, how could we expect from one person to sort and update all collections at a museum: an activity that is the cornerstone of biodiversity research? A part of the solution, hiring and training additional staff, is costly and time-consuming, especially when we know that experts on certain species groups are already scarce on a global scale.
We believe that automated image recognition holds the key to reliable and sustainable practises at natural history institutions.
Today, image recognition tools integrated in mobile apps are already being used even by citizen scientists to identify plants and animals in the field. Based on an image taken by a smartphone, those tools identify specimens on the fly and estimate the accuracy of their results. What’s more is the fact that those identifications have proven to be almost as accurate as those done by humans. This gives us hope that we could help curators at museums worldwide take better and more timely care of the collections they are responsible for.
However, specimen identification for the use of natural history institutions is still much more complex than the tools used in the field. After all, the information they store and should be able to provide is meant to serve as a knowledge hub for educational and reference purposes for present and future generations of researchers around the globe.
This is why we propose a sustainable system where images, knowledge, trained recognition models and tools are exchanged between institutes, and where an international collaboration between museums from all sizes is crucial. The aim is to have a system that will benefit the entire community of natural history collections in providing further access to their invaluable collections.
We propose four elements to this system:
A central library of already trained image recognition models (algorithms) needs to be created. It will be openly accessible, so any other institute can profit from models trained by others.
A central library of datasets accessing images of collection specimens that have recently been identified by experts. This will provide an indispensable source of images for training new algorithms.
A digital workbench that provides an easy-to-use interface for inexperienced users to customise the algorithms and datasets to the particular needs in their own collections.
As the entire system depends on international collaboration as well as sharing of algorithms and datasets, a user forum is essential to discuss issues, coordinate, evaluate, test or implement novel technologies.
How would this work on a daily basis for curators? We provide two examples of use cases.
First, let’s zoom in to a case where a curator needs to identify a box of insects, for example bush crickets, to a lower taxonomic level. Here, he/she would take an image of the box and split it into segments of individual specimens. Then, image recognition will identify the bush crickets to a lower taxonomic level. The result, which we present in the table below – will be used to update object-level registration or to physically rearrange specimens into more accurate boxes. This entire step can also be done by non-specialist staff.
Another example is to incorporate image recognition tools into digitisation processes that include imaging specimens. In this case, image recognition tools can be used on the fly to check or confirm the identifications and thus improve data quality.
Using image recognition tools to identify specimens in museum collections is likely to become common practice in the future. It is a technical tool that will enable the community to share available taxonomic expertise.
Using image recognition tools creates the possibility to identify species groups for which there is very limited to none in-house expertise. Such practises would substantially reduce costs and time spent per treated item.
Image recognition applications carry metadata like version numbers and/or datasets used for training. Additionally, such an approach would make identification more transparent than the one carried out by humans whose expertise is, by design, in no way standardised or transparent.
Greeff M, Caspers M, Kalkman V, Willemse L, Sunderland BD, Bánki O, Hogeweg L (2022) Sharing taxonomic expertise between natural history collections using image recognition. Research Ideas and Outcomes 8: e79187. https://doi.org/10.3897/rio.8.e79187
Genetic assessment of captive gibbons to identify their species and subspecies is an important step before any conservation actions. A group of wildlife researchers recently discovered a previously unknown population of white-handed gibbons (subspecies lar) from Peninsular Malaysia. Their findings are now published in the open-access journal ZooKeys. Betsy and Lola are among the captive white-handed gibbons undergoing a strict rehabilitation process before being released back to the wild.
Many captive gibbons kept in zoos and rescue centres have been seized from illegal pet trade, private collectors, and plantations where their natural habitats are getting destroyed.
In 2013, the National Wildlife Rescue Centre (NWRC) of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) was established in Peninsular Malaysia to help with the rehabilitation of wildlife species – including gibbons – before they are reintroduced or translocated back to the wild. Under the Primate Rehabilitation Programme initiated by PERHILITAN, captive gibbons have to go through a number of procedures and assessments, where their taxonomy and genetics might be examined, before they can go back to living in the wild.
In a research paper published in the open-access journal ZooKeys, the team describes a previously unknown southern population of the white-handed gibbon subspecies lar living in Peninsular Malaysia. In what started as a straightforward species and subspecies identification process using DNA technology, the researchers discovered unusual mutations in the DNA of the studied gibbons. This is how the researchers found themselves before a distinct population, which they concluded must have been evolving in isolation.
“Given the prolonged isolation, it is likely that the southern population has undergone some local speciation, but this finding should be regarded as preliminary and requires further investigation,” explained Dr Jeffrine. Furthermore, the researchers suggest there might be a northern population inhabiting Southern Thailand.
Still going through rehabilitation, the gibbons from the study have been pre-released into a semi-wild enclosure known as Pulau Ungka (Gibbon Island), where their recovery is closely monitored by primate experts of PERHILITAN.
Gani M, Rovie-Ryan JJ, Sitam FT, Mohd Kulaimi, NA, Zheng, CC, Atiqah AN, Abd Rahim, NM, Mohammed AA (2021) Taxonomic and genetic assessment of captive White-Handed Gibbons (Hylobates lar) in Peninsular Malaysia with implications towards conservation translocation and reintroduction programme. ZooKeys 1076: 25–41 (2021), doi: 10.3897/zookeys.1076.73262
An image on Instagram prompted the discovery of a new species of Kukri snake from Himachal Pradesh, India. Intrigued by a post shared by a master student, the research team found and examined more specimens to discover they belonged to a yet undescribed species. Their study, published in the open-access journal Evolutionary Systematics, highlights how little we still know about the biodiversity in the Western Himalayas.
Intrigued by a photo shared on Instagram, a research team from India discovered a previously unknown species of kukri snake.
Staying at home in Chamba because of the COVID-19 lockdown, Virendar K. Bhardwaj, a master student in Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, started exploring his backyard, photographing everything he found there and posting the pictures online. His Instagram account started buzzing with the life of the snakes, lizards, frogs, and insects he encountered.
The snake, which Virendar encountered along a mud road on a summer evening, belongs to a group commonly known as Kukri snakes, named so because of their curved teeth that resemble the Nepali dagger “Kukri”.
At first sight, the individual that Virendar photographed looked a lot like the Common Kukri snake (Oligodon arnensis). However, a herpetologist could spot some unique features that raised questions about its identity.
Virendar uploaded the photo on 5 June 2020, and by the end of the month, after extensively surveying the area, he found two individuals – enough to proceed with their identification. However, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the research work as labs and natural history museums remained closed.
Upon the reopening of labs, the team studied the DNA of the specimens and found out they belonged to a species different from the Common Kukri snake. Then, they compared the snakes’ morphological features with data from literature and museums and used micro computed tomography scans to further investigate their morphology. In the end, the research team were able to confirm the snakes belonged to a species previously unknown to science.
The discovery was published in a research paper in the international peer-reviewed journal Evolutionary Systematics. There, the new species is described as Oligodon churahensis, its name a reference to the Churah Valley in Himachal Pradesh, where it was discovered.
“It is quite interesting to see how an image on Instagram led to the discovery of such a pretty snake that, until very recently, remained hidden to the world,” comments Zeeshan A. Mirza.
“What’s even more interesting is that the exploration of your own backyard may yield still undocumented species. Lately, people have been eager to travel to remote biodiversity hotspots to find new or rare species, but if one looks in their own backyard, they may end up finding a new species right there.”
“Compared to other biodiversity hotspots, the Western Himalayas are still poorly explored, especially in terms of herpetological diversity, but they harbor unique reptile species that we have only started to unravel in the last couple of years,” Mirza adds.
Mirza ZA, Bhardwaj VK, Patel H (2021) A new species of snake of the genus Oligodon Boie in Fitzinger, 1826 (Reptilia, Serpentes) from the Western Himalayas. Evolutionary Systematics 5(2): 335-345. https://doi.org/10.3897/evolsyst.5.72564
A new species of parasitoid wasp that constructs remarkable star-shaped cocoon masses is reported from the biodiversity hot spot Ryukyu Islands. Japanese researchers observed how the wasps construct “stars” after making their way out of the moth larvae they inhabit during their own larval stage. In their study, published in the open-access journal Journal of Hymenoptera Research, the team discuss the ecological significance of the cocoon mass and the evolution of this peculiar structure.
Parasitoid wasps parasitize a variety of organisms, mostly insects. They lay eggs in the host, a larva of hawk moth in this case, where the wasp larvae later hatch. After eating the host from the inside out, the larvae spin threads to form cocoons, in which they pupate, and from which the adult wasps eventually emerge.
Larvae of the newly discovered parasitoid wasp form star-shaped masses of cocoons lined up in a spherical pattern, suspended by a thread that can reach up to 1 meter in length. The structure, 7 to 14 mm wide and 9 to 23 mm long, can accommodate over 100 cocoons.
Despite its peculiarity, the wasp species constructing these masses had not been previously described: morphological observation and molecular analysis revealed that it was new to science. The authors aptly called it Meteorus stellatus, adding the Latin word for “starry” to its scientific name.
Thanks to the recent publication, we now have the first detailed report about the construction of such a remarkable cocoon mass in parasitoid wasps. We can also see what the process looks like, as the researchers were able to film the wasps escaping from the moth larvae and forming the star-shaped structure.
Why does M. stellatus form cocoons in such a unique structure?
The authors of the study believe this unique structure helps the wasps survive through the most critical time, i.e. the period of constructing cocoons and pupating, when they are exposed to various natural enemies and environmental stresses. The star shape most likely reduces the exposed area of individual cocoons, thus increasing their defense against hyper-parasitoids (wasps attacking cocoons of other parasitoid wasps), while the long thread that suspends the cocoon mass protects the cocoons from potential enemies like ants.
“How parasitoid wasps have evolved to form such unique masses instead of the common individual cocoons should be the next thing on our ‘to-research’ list,” say the authors.
Fujie S, Shimizu S, Tone K, Matsuo K, Maeto K (2021) Stars in subtropical Japan: a new gregarious Meteorus species (Hymenoptera, Braconidae, Euphorinae) constructs enigmatic star-shaped pendulous communal cocoons. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 86: 19-45. https://doi.org/10.3897/jhr.86.71225
For the first time in Slovakia, the dwarf spider Walckenaeria stylifrons and crab spider Spiracme mongolica were discovered on sand dunes in Záhorie Protected Landscape Area, on localities that serve as a military complex, used by the native Slovak army. Moreover, the spider W. stylifrons was found in a wine-growing region near the historical town of Modra.
European continental sand dunes, characterized by high ground temperature, high temperature fluctuations and movement of sand masses, belong to the rare, climatically extreme areas resembling deserts. In Europe, lowland sandy grassland habitats are considered to be among the most endangered and are often the subject of nature conservation.
The researchers decided to understand the spider assemblages living in such extreme habitats in Western Slovakia. During 2018–2019, the study sites were chosen and co-called pitfall traps hidden in the ground were used to collect spiders.
Among other collected species, two spiders were found for the first time in Slovakia. The dwarf spider W. stilifrons is recorded from 15 European countries and it is known from Eastern England to Eastern Germany in the north, and from the Iberian Peninsula to the Crimea and Cyprus in the south. Within Central Europe, the species has so far been known from Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The crab spider S. mongolica is known from Serbia to the European part of Russia. Its distribution in Asia extends from Central Asian part of Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan to Mongolia and China. In China it is known only from Western Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang region.
Upon the detailed examination of male copulatory organs, the researchers found out that one of the species shares characters typical for the genus Spiracme, in consideration of that a new combinationSpiracme mongolica for the spider previously known as Xysticus mongolicus was suggested.
In conclusion, the authors assume that W. stilifrons can live elsewhere in Europe. The rarity of the species may be related to the occurrence of adults, especially in the winter months, as most researchers are focused only on the growing seasons. The occurrence of S. mongolica in sand dunes in Slovakia confirms this species preference for dry habitats. The new finding of S. mongolica is the most known westernmost.
Research article: Purgat P, Gajdoš P, Purkart A, Hurajtová N, Volnár Ľ, Krajčovičová K (2021) Walckenaeria stilifrons and Spiracme mongolica (Araneae, Linyphiidae, Thomisidae), two new species to Slovakia. Check List 17 (6): 1601-1608. doi: 10.15560/17.6.1601
Have you ever seen a one-centimetre-long jumping critter in a leaflitter or close to a pond or a stream and thought that it is some juvenile insect? What you saw was probably an adult pygmy grasshopper, member of the family Tetrigidae. There are more than 2000 described species of those minute jumping insects, and this peculiar family has been around for more than 230 million years, meaninng that pygmies said both ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ to dinosaurs. And yet, we know more about dinosaurs than we do about pygmy grasshoppers.
“(…) pronotum often takes on various extreme modifications, giving to the insects a most grotesque or bizarre appearance (…)”
quote from Hancock, Joseph Lane (1907) Orthoptera fam. Acridiidae, subfam Tetriginae. Genera Insectorum.
Have you ever seen a one-centimetre-long jumping critter in a leaflitter or close to a pond or a stream and thought that it is some juvenile insect? Well, I must disappoint you. What you saw was probably an adult pygmy grasshopper, member of the family Tetrigidae. There are more than 2000 described species of those minute jumping insects, and this peculiar family has been around for more than 230 million years, meaninng that pygmies said both ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ to dinosaurs. And yet, we know more about dinosaurs than we do about pygmy grasshoppers.
Most of the research you can find out there is probably based on genera Tetrix and Paratettix in Europe or Northern America (Adžić et al. 2021). Species of Northern America (Nearctic region, 35 species) and Europe (W Palearctic region, 11 species) are indeed best known from the standpoint of natural history, even though they represent only about 2% of the diversity. Here is the list of 19 species that are most often observed by amateur naturalists on the iNaturalist platform (Table 1) and as you can see 12 out of 19 species are indeed from Europe and Northern America. Because of that, let us focus on awesome neglected diversity in the tropics.
N of observations
Indochina and islands of SE Asia
W Palearctic: Mediterranean
S Nearctic to N Neotropics
Java, Sumatra, Bali
Table 1. Well-known Tetrigidae species. Pygmy grasshoppers with more than 25 Research-Grade observations in iNaturalist, together with their distribution briefly explained.
Why do I mention the iNaturalist platform? Because I think it is the future of zoology, especially of faunistics. Never before have we been able to simultaneously gather so much data from so many different places. I started using Flickr some time ago to search for photos of unidentified rare pygmy grasshoppers. I did find many rare species, and what is even crazier, species that were not known to science. I’ll try to present you with a glimpse of the diversity I found online, so maybe some new students or amateurs will contribute, as they did with Paraselina brunneri, after the study was published in ZooKeys.
It seems that “rare” species from Australia are not so rare after all
Many new records ofParaselina brunneri and Selivinga tribulata can now be found online, thanks to a study published with ZooKeys.
Enjoy some selected awesome places and selected amazing taxa that inhabit those places. Emphasis is given on the extremely rare and weird-looking, or as Hancock called them, bizarre and grotesque species. Those with leaf-like morphology, spines, warts, undulations, or horns. Enjoy a short voyage from the rainforests of Madagascar through the humid forests of Australia, New Guinea, Borneo, and finally the Atlantic Forest of Brazil.
Madagascar is home to some of the largest and most colourful species of Tetrigidae in whole world
Very peculiar are the species of the genera Holocerusand Notocerus, both of which were discussed in studies published in ZooKeys. Finally, one can find photographs of these beauties identified to species level.
Interesting fact about those large pygmy grasshoppers: When I visited the rainforests of Madagascar, I observed one Holocerus devriesei and took photos of it. The insect then took flight far away in the rainforest. Who could think that an animal with such a large back spines could be such a skilful flier! The same is maybe true for Notocerus.
Not all pygmy grasshoppers are large and colourful
Some species, like the Pymgy unicorns of Southern America are small but still interesting. Metopomystrum muriciense was described with ZooKeys from the Atlantic rainforests of Murici, Brazil, in 2017.
Some pygmy grasshoppers are weird
Giraffehoppers from New Guinea are among the most unique pygmy grasshoppers. Many species can be differentiated by the antennal shape, and maybe by face coloration. Those are very visual animals, and antennae and colours might be used for courtship (Tumbrinck & Skejo 2017).
For young entomologists: How did I decide to study pygmy grasshoppers?
No true biology student knows what she or he wants to study and which direction to take. With me, it was pretty much the same thing. Systematics caught my attention during primary and high school, and I always had a tendency to systematically compare data. My first idea was to study snakes, as I was amazed by shield-tailed snakes (Uropeltidae) and blind snakes (Scolecophidia), about whom I have read a lot. Unfortunately, I never saw representatives of those snake groups, but fortunately, there were a lot of animals that I had seen, and with whom I was more familiar in the field. Among them, there were grasshoppers and crickets (order Orthoptera). Together with Fran Rebrina, my friend and fellow student, I started the first systematic research of Orthoptera of Croatia and the Balkans. Our study on two Croatian endemic species, Rhacocleis buchichii and Barbitistes kaltenbachi, was published with ZooKeys last year.
In the first years of our Orthoptera studies (2011-2012), I never saw a single pygmy grasshopper in Croatia. I remember it as if it was yesterday when Fran and I asked our senior colleague, Ivan Budinski (BIOM, Sinj), where we could find Tetrigidae, and he confidently said that they are to be found around water. Peruća lake near the city of Vrlika was he place where I saw pygmy grasshoppers, namely Tetrix depressa and Tetrix ceperoi, for the first time ever. I could not believe that there were grasshoppers whose lifecycle is water dependent in any way, so I kept researching them, contacting leading European orthopterists familiar with them (Hendrik Devriese, Axel Hochkirch, Josef Tumbrinck), and checking all the museum collections where I could enter. The encounter on the shores of Peruća was the moment that determined my career as an entomologist. After I discovered specimens of the extremely rare Tetrix transsylvanica in Croatian Natural History Museum (HPM – Hrvatski Prirodoslovni Muzej, Zagreb) in 2013 (Skejo et al. 2014), and after a serendipitous discovery of a new Arulenus species (Skejo & Caballero 2016), I just decided that maybe this interesting group was understudied and required systematic research, and here I am in 2021, regularly publishing on this very group.
Mathieu É, Pavlović M, Skejo J (2021) The true colours of the Formidable Pygmy Grasshopper (Notocerus formidabilis Günther, 1974) from the Sava region (Madagascar). ZooKeys 1042: 41-50. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1042.66381
Silva DSM, Josip Skejo, Pereira MR, De Domenico FC, Sperber CF (2017) Comments on the recent changes in taxonomy of pygmy unicorns, with description of a new species of Metopomystrum from Brazil (Insecta, Tetrigidae, Cleostratini, Miriatrini). ZooKeys 702: 1-18. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.702.13981
Skejo J, Connors M, Hendriksen M, Lambert N, Chong G, McMaster I, Monaghan N, Rentz D, Richter R, Rose K, Franjević D (2020) Online social media tells a story of Anaselina, Paraselina, and Selivinga (Orthoptera, Tetrigidae), rare Australian pygmy grasshoppers. ZooKeys 948: 107-119. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.948.52910
Skejo J, Medak K, Pavlović M, Kitonić D, Miko RJC, Franjević D (2020) The story of the Malagasy devils (Orthoptera, Tetrigidae): Holocerus lucifer in the north and H. devriesei sp. nov. in the south? ZooKeys 957: 1-15. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.957.52565
Tumbrinck, J & Skejo, J. (2027) Taxonomic and biogeographic revision of the New Guinean genus Ophiotettix Walker, 1871 (Tetrigidae: Metrodorinae: Ophiotettigini trib. nov.), with the descriptions of 33 new species. In Telnov D, Barclay MVL, Pauwels OS (Eds) Biodiversity, biogeography and nature conservation in Wallacea and New Guinea (Volume III). The Entomological Society of Latvia, Riga, Latvia, 525-580.
As someone who enjoys taking regular long walks, listening to podcasts has always been an irreplaceable source of pleasure for me. As an arachnologist and taxonomist, I had been hoping for years that someone would start a podcast dedicated to taxonomy and the discovery of new species. Thankfully, earlier this year Dr. L. Brian Patrick from Dakota Wesleyan University started such a project with the New Species Podcast, and the results are much, much better than what I’d been hoping for. I was particularly delighted when I got invited to the show to talk about a paper in which, together with my colleague Dr. Yuri M. Marusik, we described 17 new species of zodariid spiders from Iran and Turkmenistan.
I first met Brian in person at the 19th International Congress of Arachnology in Taiwan in 2013, where we had a fruitful discussion about various collecting methods for spiders and other arthropods. I personally believe that it is of utmost importance that efforts like Brian’s to popularize taxonomy – especially in these trying times – should be publicly acknowledged. And what better way to acknowledge someone’s efforts in popularizing the discovery of new species than to actually dedicate a new species name to them? For this reason, together with my colleague Dr. Marusik we decided to name one of our newly discovered species of Iranian spiders after Brian, in recognition of his wonderful job on the production of the podcast.
I am deeply moved and flattered that anyone would name a species after me. I think they must have run out of ideas for specific epithets if they’re naming a species after me!
I am glad that the podcast has inspired at least a few people, and I am trying to help more people understand that dozens to hundreds of new species are described almost every day of the year. I want people to understand the process of biodiversity discovery and the lab and field work associated with that process. Most importantly, I hope that people recognize that we are losing species before we can even find them.
L. Brian Patrick
The new species is named Mesiotelus patricki and is a member of the family Liocranidae. Commonly known as spiny-legged sac spiders, this family is relatively poorly studied globally, with less than 300 currently recognized species; most liocranids are free-living ground-dwelling spiders that can be found within the forest litter and under rocks and stones, usually in well-vegetated habitats.
In the same paper, we also described a new genus and another nine new species of spiders from Iran. Among these, Brigittea avicenna was named after the preeminent Persian polymath Avicenna, while Zagrotes borna and Zagrotes parla were named using Persian given names, meaning “young” and “glowing”, respectively.
It is noteworthy that all of the specimens used in this study had been collected in the 70s by Austrian and Swiss zoologists, and had been sitting on museum shelves for decades, waiting to be “discovered” and formally described. This clearly demonstrates the importance of natural history museums and the value of their scientific collections, as major institutes around the world house hundreds of thousands of undescribed species that are just out there, waiting to be named. We hope that efforts like Brian’s podcast would bring more attention to taxonomy and discovery of new species, as more and more people and investments are indeed needed in this field to unveil the magnificent biodiversity of our planet.
A newly discovered miniature trap jaw ant from the evergreen tropical forests of Ecuador bears the curious Latin name Strumigenys ayersthey, among hundreds, which are also named in honour of people, but end with -ae (after females) and –i (after males). This makes the newly described ant perhaps the only species in the world to have a scientific name with the suffix –they, thus celebrating gender diversity.
The insect was first found by Philipp Hoenle of the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, during a cooperative investigation of the Reserva Río Canandé in 2018. The reserve belongs to the NGO Jocotoco, and preserves a small part of the highly threatened biodiversity hotspots called the Chocó.
Hoenle reached out to taxonomic expert Douglas Booher of Yale University. Soon, Booher responded with excitement that this species was unlike any other of the 850+ species belonging to its genus. As a result, the team described the previously unknown to science species and its remarkable trap-jaw morphology in a research paper, published in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal ZooKeys.
Curiously, it was no other but lead singer and lyricist of the American alternative rock band R.E.M. Michael Stipe that joined Booher in the writing of the etymology section for the research article. This is the part in the publication, where they honor their mutual friend, activist and artist Jeremy Ayers and explain the origin of the species name.
“In contrast to the traditional naming practices that identify individuals as one of two distinct genders, we have chosen a non-Latinized portmanteau honoring the artist Jeremy Ayers and representing people that do not identify with conventional binary gender assignments – Strumigenys ayersthey”. The ‘they’ recognizes non-binary gender identifiers in order to reflect recent evolution in English pronoun use – ‘they, them, their’ and address a more inclusive and expansive understanding of gender identification.”
Current nomenclature practice on how to name animal species after people only differentiates between male and female personal names, offering respectively the ending -ae for a woman or -i for a man.
The research team additionally propose that the -they suffix can be used for singular honorific names of non-binary identifiers.
When asked about the choice of a name for the ant, Booher said: “Such a beautiful and rare animal was just the species to celebrate both biological and human diversity. Small changes in language have had a large impact on culture. Language is dynamic and so should be the change in naming species – a basic language of science”.
With their choice, the team invites the scientific community to keep pace with the likes of Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary and HSBC Bank, who have also adapted their own institutional practices, language usage and recognition to represent gender diversity.
Strumigenys ayersthey can be distinguished by its predominantly smooth and shining cuticle surface and long trap-jaw mandibles, which make it unique among nearly a thousand species of its genus. The researchers haven’t been able to obtain more specimens of the species, which suggests that it’s rare.
Booher DB, Hoenle PO (2021) A new species group of Strumigenys (Hymenoptera, Formicidae) from Ecuador, with a description of its mandible morphology. ZooKeys 1036: 1–19. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.1036.62034